I was preparing to switch jobs when I saw the news that Yolo County had chosen the open source Koha library catalog. In tandem, I noticed a posting about egroupware, another open source tool, and an alternative to Microsoft’s 365 environment. We are spoiled for choice when it comes to open source software. Increasingly, we can make smarter choices because open source doesn’t mean DIY.

Long time readers of this blog will know I lean towards DIY, often manifested as open source. When I read the Yolo news, I was in the midst of rolling my own version of Koha in a VirtualBox environment. There is no cost to acquire this fantastic integrated library system – download your own! And my new library is running Koha too, so I wanted to re-familiarize myself with the application.

If you use Koha in your law library or know someone who does, would you mind letting me know in the comments at the bottom of this post? I’m curious to know how many of us there are out there. I first taught about Koha at the U of Illinois library school before it supported serials, and so wasn’t a good fit for law libraries. Times change!

One thing you’ll come across in a lot of write ups of open source is something along the lines of “It’s not complicated to set up ….” And that’s generally true. Some open source apps are so easy as to be indistinguishable from other apps. Mozilla’s Firefox browser is a great example – go to the Microsoft Store, choose Get and install it. Easy peasy.

It jumps a threshold question, though. No matter how small your law library and your available resources, the first thing to ask before you roll your own open source solution is not can I, but should I?

License Isn’t Definitive

I lean away from commercial licensed products if there are open source competitors. There are still some decisions – like going to hosted Microsoft 365 – that, frankly make more sense to me than running email servers or SharePoint or other applications on-premises.

The benefits to me from open source are that your investment is not just for your own implementation. Potentially, code you develop for your law library will be reusable by other library users. And you get the same potential benefit from others investments.

One very high level discussion I had back in the mid 2000s was whether there was enough interest among similar law libraries to fund a serials module for Koha. Not only would we all have benefited – both from the module and making Koha feasible for law libraries – but other Koha users could have adopted it.

You can see that with the Koha community’s plugins. It’s one of the reasons I love WordPress, another open source tool. The community can extend the platform without waiting for a commercial provider to agree about utility or prioritization on a road map.

I have Koha a little on the brain this month. Not only is it our catalog at my new library, but there’s a Koha Community event I’m participating in. I realize there are lots of user groups out there but I get more excited about the open source ones.

Any time I look at a software acquisition, I go through a quick mental checklist:

  • do I need anything new? Is this something I can do just as well using something I already have? This is particularly true the more discrete the app functionality is;
  • is there an open source option and how is both the app and the support community for the app? healthy? deep?

Some apps are run by two guys named Steve. I think that’s great but I’m not sure I’d run my business on it. Ironically, most of us were using the Steves’ application without knowing it and without realizing how poorly supported it was. The bigger the community, the more likely it is to be something a law library can use.

The shift in technology roles – from direct support to relationship management – has been discussed for many years. In libraries, we see an ongoing shift to cloud services: Gimlet for reference, your library catalog, your legal research databases, email and collaboration with Microsoft 365 or Google Workspace. Each app we move to the cloud reduces our hardware footprint. As we reduce our servers, we change the types of people we need running law library technology.

In commercial arenas, the shift is theoretically towards a smaller IT staff. The CIO becomes more of a manager of relationships rather than being directly responsible for how things work. I liked this Deloitte summary of how the CIO has evolved over time.

Comparison of the evolution of the CIO from the 1980s to the 2010s in a chart from “From the Basement to the Cloud: The Role of the CIO over Four Decades” by Deloitte Consulting (2018)

Law libraries may or may not have dedicated IT, let alone a CIO-comparable role. I expect there are lots of law library directors who are essentially playing that role. For them, the choice between licensing an app to run on premises or licensing a relationship for someone to manage the app is a clear one. All things being equal, we want someone else to manage the technology and leave us or our staff to manage the relationship.

In a choice between open source and commercial apps, the preference may be the latter even though the cost to acquire is higher. You pay for the relationship. You deploy money in place of in-house technical skills and personnel.

Have a Cake and Eat It

The biggest change in the last decade is that open source no longer means DIY. It can be, if your law library has the technical know how. And, in some cases, it may be easier to spin up your own on-premises or hosted open source application. The costs beyond acquisition, whether dollars or staff time, are manageable.

I ran my own WordPress site for nearly a decade, and other internet-facing apps for longer than that. The cost-benefit analysis meant that it made more sense to run my own blog on my own server. But times change and the dangers of running your own servers, whether with commercial or open source software, are a lot greater.

Courthouse law libraries have two primary risk vectors. One is loss of identifying data, although we may not keep much in the way of personally identifiable information. The second is reputational risk. No one wants to be hacked but a publicly funded entity can be particularly susceptible to negative press.

Increasingly, then, law libraries should probably be making two decisions about their operational applications. Move them to the cloud, and have someone else manage them. A move to the cloud can at least shrink your hardware footprint, even if you manage the apps yourself.

Then you need to decide who manages them. A WordPress blog? It can cut both ways. I manage my own in the cloud. I’ve seen a managed one get hacked because the managers weren’t doing their job. I think it depends how mission critical it is and how complicated the app. These days, there are probably few to no apps that can’t be managed for a law library.

There are probably a lot of apps – a blog included – that you could easily manage yourself. A self-paced course on WordPress management will be cheaper than ongoing web site support. With many hosted apps, so long as you can keep up the security updates, you should be fine.

But having WordPress manage your WordPress blog is just a cost-shifting choice. Some companies that support open source can scale in such a way that the cost to use their service is much cheaper than doing it yourself. You choose the access over the ownership, as we often do between print and electronic formats.

The more complicated, the more likely it makes sense to push both the app to the cloud and the relationship to a managed one. Sure, I’m hoping to relearn how to run my own Koha implementation. But I wouldn’t want to do that at work. And, unless your law library has dedicated staff to support that type of technology, a library system is a great example of something that can and should be hosted and managed elsewhere.

It’s not all upside. I’m a bit disappointed that there are fewer opportunities for law libraries to run their own systems. That’s fewer folks working up the technology side of law libraries, as those roles, like technical service ones, may fall away as our collection and applications shift.

Some of that was going to happen anyway due to shortness of resources. Do you hire a library subject matter expert who is outward facing or do you hire someone to support your systems? At some point, a public-facing librarian or library technician may enable more service delivery than an IT person. But the inability to keep those roles may also mean we shift to a managed state at the expense of the ability to innovate. Innovation in the future may rely more heavily on either technology-skilled library staff or on the developments of apps that can be hosted and managed.